Woohoo! Off to Croatia with the ‘rents! This trip was planned for months and we couldn’t have been more excited. After a memorable first portion of their visit (read blog here – all about our time in Hungary and Slovenia together), it was time for the “big trip.” The entire trip was to take 10 days and cover a lot of ground in Croatia – with a day in Bosnia-Herzegovina! Nannie and Pappi are so fun to travel with because they are wide-eyed and curious about everything we see. Even when we are just driving along between destinations, it’s fun to hear what they notice that maybe we haven’t picked up on before. For example, dad will always comment on infrastructure, landscape and weather. “This reminds me of Maine!” or “How in the world did they build that house on the side of that cliff?!” He’s amazed by the mountains and always has a good joke about NOT being able to do THAT hike (any more). Mom, on the other hand, will notice the people and products – always scoping out a great place to snag an authentic souvenir. She’s a worldly woman, and appreciates learning about the history of a place. She was constantly reading about the places we were and sharing tidbits in the car, “Did you know people travel here from all over the world as a holy pilgrimage site?” and that made for a much more enriched experience for all of us!
The Croatian border is only about 2 hours from us here in Papa, but the entire road trip we had planned was 12 hours without stops, so we decided to break that up a bit by heading out a day early and making the 6-ish hour drive to Zadar for the first night. That allowed all the other days to be shorter drives with more time allowed for sightseeing, shopping, EATING and relaxing!
Zadar is a city in the central coast of Croatia that has a distinct modern side juxtaposed with the ancient, historic old city center. The city has evidence of the earliest settlements in the Neolithic and Stone Ages! It was ruled by the Romans from 59 BC to 614 AD, had a variety of rulers and allegiances through the first century and was sacked by the Venetians with the help of the Crusaders in 1202. Later, Hungary regained control of Zadar and the city ended up going back and forth between the Venetians, Hungarians, Austrians and Turks for a few hundred years. The Italians claimed the majority of time occupied and therefore they had the most development and influence in the region that can still be viewed today. It was only during WWII that Zadar officially became part of former Yugoslavia. Today Zadar is the “historic center” of the Dalmatia region.
We visited Zadar last October on another visit we took to the region, and because it was “off season,” it was rainy, not as many restaurants were open, and one of the main attractions we were excited to see was under refurbishment. This time, however, was a different story! Zadar was hopping and vibrant. We were all ready to get out of the car after driving all afternoon and evening so we found a parking spot near the Kopnena Vrata (land gate to the old city, built in 1543) and made our way through the smooth stone streets to the shore of the Adriatic right in time for sunset!
After a comfortable night sleep in a beautiful apartment ($100 USD for a 3 bedroom, 2 bath apartment with balcony, kitchen and living room! Apartments and a Room Ina, Zadar. Highly recommend!) we took a lovely morning stroll down the shoreline near our apartment to a really cool little Beach Bar. We must’ve opened up the place, because it sure looked like they had been open late and were recovering from that! We all said it looked like an awesome place to check out in the evenings too. It had loads of character! We had coffee at “Famous Beach Bar & Grill” and then visited a nearby grocery store to stock up on road supplies and breakfast snacks before hitting the road again. A MUST in Croatia is a delicious, flaky pastry called “burek.” My favorite by far is potato, which tastes like the best breakfast potatoes you’ve ever had stuffed into a light phyllo dough tube. Potato bureks were a hit all around! After our time there, we ultimately decided Zadar was a great stopping point for a visit but probably not a place to come and spend an entire vacation.
From Zadar we headed south towards our next destination, Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina! We didn’t plan on any other stops on the way, but that morning mom discovered in her research on the region that there was a town she’d always heard about right on the way to Mostar so we decided to add that to our tour. The roads in Croatia are really excellent, and operate on a toll system. Its rather expensive, but not as pricey as neighboring Italy. We are quite lucky in Hungary (and Slovenia, Czechia and Austria) to operate on the vignette system. Just pay once and you’re covered!
So along we went, past Sibenik (where we visited before and recommend it! Read all about it here in the blog all about our last trip to Croatia) and Split – where we planned to visit the last day of our tour – all the way through the border. Right away we noticed the landscape was different in B-Hz. Everything felt a little more rough around the edges…
Our first stop in B-Hz is a small town called Medjugorje. Mom explained to us that she knew several people in our hometown back in Maine who had made pilgrimage(s) here so she wanted to see for herself what drew her Catholic friends here. It is an unofficial place of Catholic reverence and holiness since 1981. It was then that the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to six “very credible” teenagers on several occasions, and so began the protection of the area and the pilgrimage trend. A church was built on the site, and an abstract statue of “Risen Christ” is said to drip liquid from different areas on its surface. We parked on the busy street and we could tell immediately this was a touristy area – lots of shops and plenty of eateries. I’m sure this area could be flooded with people (based on the event calendar near the church) so we were really glad to be there in a low season. This was surprising, however, as Easter Sunday was the next day!
After a nice visit at Medjugorje, we continued on to Mostar. We already observed this country to have a very different feel than Croatia (or anywhere else we had been), so we were all very curious to see what the small town of Mostar was like. As we approached it from the hills it became apparent that the town itself was dotted with the towers of mosques. It was a stark contrast to what we had ever seen, let alone having just come from a Catholic pilgrimage town.
Mostar is the central hub of the Herzegovina region of this country, serving as its cultural and economic capital. Mostar is a city represented by a large population of people – both Muslims and Christians – living in harmony. The name Mostar means “bridge keeper” and is fitting as the most famous landmark in the city is the Stari Most bridge (old bridge) over the river Neretva. The bridge was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century and is 92 feet (28 m) long and 66 feet (20 m) high. Today, trained divers collect money to take jumps off the bridge and Red Bull has an official diving competition here as well! Right away we could feel we were in a place with rich cultural history – one of turmoil but ultimately cooperation.
Mostar is a place to explore on foot, so we went straight to our apartment to unwind before venturing out to see the shops and find a good place to eat dinner. As spacious and private as our first apartment was in Zadar, this teeny tiny apartment may have slept four adults and three children, but BOY was it a tight squeeze! For everything – including our van! We just barely made it into their private parking area (basically a courtyard) by inches. I think dad was having a heart attack! He may laugh about it now, but when Beau reached his hand out the window to touch the walls on either side of the van, he wasn’t laughing! Derek did a great job navigating the narrow streets and getting us safely parked.
Our hosts were overwhelmingly gracious and welcoming, even upgrading us to “the room with a balcony.” It was super cute and really, just fine for one night. You can’t really beat it for $75! Sure, maybe the only trashcan in the place was miniature and fit on the countertop, but it worked! The most interesting thing for us was hearing Islamic prayers being projected on the loudspeakers during prayer times. The prayers are all at different times every day and never predictable, as they are in accordance to the sun. So, for example before sunrise there is a prayer and it began at 5:41am. Also after sunset there was a prayer and it began at 9:08pm. A fascinating ritual to behold! It’s amazing to me that entire cities pray in unison.
We made our way into the city, walking carefully along the river about a mile until we reached the first bridge that overlooked the little metropolitan area. We got our first glimpse of Stari Most and it was breathtaking! Every bit as impressive as we had imagined. We continued on, noticing buildings that had bullet holes and passing countless mosques.
Once we reached the center of town it was obvious by the buzzing of shops and restaurants. We walked through the bazaar just taking in the energy of the place. The goods were very reasonably priced (but be sure to have cash! Local currency is called the convertible marka) so we found some lovely souvenirs, walked along the bridge, and found a great place to eat dinner with a view – where we could see a bridge diver take flight! We have nothing but rave reviews for the people of Mostar. They were the friendliest, most kind and welcoming people we have met so far in Europe. In spite of the “rough” feel of the area (thanks to the still-recent war), it was clear these people took pride in their home, appreciated respectful tourists, and were working hard to build what they love.
Not bad views for dinner! The owner of the restaurant we ate at (Lagero – highly recommend if you can get one of the 3 balcony tables!) was amazing and loved our “polite” kids so much that he took them out for ice cream after! He was so generous with aperitifs and sharing information about his city. We felt so cared for as there was only one other family at the restaurant then! After our delicious smorgasbord of food we took a little walk around the shops one more time before heading home to put the kids to bed. Then, after dark mom and I took one more stroll back into the town to take a look at it at night. There is just something about seeing a place and getting a feel for it at different times of the day. What a rewarding sight!
The next morning we were treated to a beautiful home-cooked breakfast that was, apparently, not their “normal” thing to do. Somehow we had secured a “breakfast included” rate with our apartment and the hosts explained they don’t usually do breakfast. But boy did they ever serve us a healthy and plentiful one! After that memorable and slightly awkward experience, we threw on our Keens (lined up Keens became a ritual sight in all of our vacation dwellings) and hopped in the van for about an hour until we reached Kravica Waterfall. We were excited to see this as we hadn’t yet been able to see the well known waterfalls in Krka and Plitvice National Parks in Croatia. This was the next best thing. We arrived early (probably our best tip for any kind of site seeing whatsoever, but especially for a place that can be touristy like these waterfalls) and were able to experience the waterfalls almost all to ourselves!
The drive from Kravica to Dubrovnik was hairy! For some bizarre reason, Google maps decided to take us through the back roads of Bosnia-Herzegovina instead of straight back to Croatia and south. It ended up being longer, winding, and pretty bumpy…but also beautiful! The views we ended up seeing were quite different than from the main highway, so even though we made it to a border crossing that we weren’t allowed to cross (they turned us around to go back 20 minutes to Neum – a crossing that wasn’t just for locals), it ended up being a fun adventure! In the future we will be sure to take the main roads though…
Dubrovnik turned out to be one of the best places we visited – we all fell in love with this amazing city! We parked in the main port (Gruz port parking) and a shuttle came to bring us to our apartment, as driving in the old city of Dubrovnik isn’t wise and really, isn’t necessary! Our apartment was beautiful – and compared to what we had seen so far – a total splurge. It overlooked the old walled city and was adjacent to a terrific beach, Banje. Weather forecasts looked ominous for our entire time in Croatia but somehow the skies cooperated more often than not and we managed to squeak out plenty of warm, sunshiny moments. The kids were SO excited to get some beach time in, so as as soon as we settled into our apartment we went straight down to the beach to relax! Mom and dad took a stroll into the old town to scope out a place to eat dinner. We learned you could stay here for months and still not dine at every establishment. The food inside the walls is good – but pricier than most in Croatia. Some places will compel you to eat there and can have a touristy vibe, but you really can’t go wrong. Croatia isn’t exactly known for its food, but it’s still good. Know that if you want to eat well, you’ll have to pony up for fine dining here.
After beach time we took a little walk down into the walled city and took in the sights. Its really an impressive place, and for Game of Thrones fans like us, it came alive with memories of all the familiar filming locations we came to know and love. We ate at a cute restaurant that had pretty average food, but it was fun! Apparently Willow’s new favorite thing on any menu is SHRIMP so she found a dish that would quench her shrimpy needs.
This is only the beginning! Read all about Part II of our Dalmatia getaway here.